Open-government advocates criticize latest draft of declassification bill

Friday, June 9, 2000

A new draft of Sen. Patrick Moynihan’s Public Interest Declassification Act surfaced again recently, but some open-government advocates say the senator pulled the measure’s last few teeth.

That’s fine with White House officials, however, who cheered the New York senator’s revisions that would make a proposed declassification board an advisory one and not one that could make binding decisions.

“These amendments make the bill acceptable to the administration,” wrote Jacob Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, in a letter to Moynihan. “We believe that a properly selected, managed and funded board will make a constructive contribution to the president’s declassification program.”

The latest revision of the bill marks Moynihan’s third effort this legislative session to bring declassification efforts up for debate in the Senate. Defense officials tore into his first effort — Senate Bill 22, known as the Government Secrecy Reform Act — as a threat to national security and an infringement on the president’s authority.

That bill would have allowed the classification of documents only if the damage to national security outweighed the public’s interest in seeing the records. More specifically, Defense Department officials adamantly opposed the creation of a review panel that could overrule the Secretary of Defense on the classification of certain records.

Moynihan’s first draft of the Public Interest Declassification Act — Senate Bill 1801 — attempted to create some sort of independent board. That version never faced debate.

“One of the challenges in declassification policy is to diversify and extend authority to break up the monopoly that individual agencies have over their records and to provide new checks and balances,” said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to decreasing government secrecy. “But you cannot have checks and balances without independent authority. Unfortunately it is politically impossible at the moment to create checks and balances that have independent authority.”

Efforts to improve federal declassification efforts came to a standstill in recent years after reported leaks of nuclear-weapons information to China. Although the FBI admits that it may have overstated the extent of the espionage scandal, opposition to declassification has not subsided.

In 1998, Congress halted implementation of a 1995 presidential order that led to the declassification of more than 600 million pages of documents. This session, GOP leadership proposed legislation that would require government officials to review those documents and consider reclassifying them.

Last August, the House and Senate Armed Services committees agreed to slash the Defense Department’s $200 million declassification budget to $51 million during the next fiscal year.

Michael Waterman, Moynihan’s press secretary, said the senator felt that he had to revise his legislation to keep it alive.

Apparently, the third time is the charm.

Lew of the Office of Management and Budget praised the revisions saying the review board would be able to examine more aspects of declassification. He was also pleased that the board would no longer have the power to order declassification or allocate funds to that end.

John Podesta, White House chief of staff, echoed Lew’s comments.

“We like the substitute,” Podesta wrote in a letter to Moynihan. “Bravo. Pass it.”

Aftergood said he, too, would like to see the bill pass, saying it would give Congress a stake and a little bit of oversight into the declassification process.

“And that can only be to the good,” he said. “Even if Congress held a hearing once a year on the annual reports on the board, that would be a lot more than they are doing now.”

Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for the First Amendment Center.